Federal highway and transit programs are back in business, but only through March 28, thanks to enactment late on March 2 of a delayed stopgap funding measure.
But state and industry officials noted that the respite is brief. They are hoping that Congress soon will pass a further highway-transit extension, through Dec. 31.
The newly enacted stopgap bill, which also extends unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits for several weeks, gained final congressional approval with Senate passage on a strong 78-19 vote. President Obama signed the bill later on March 2.
The action marks an end to a two-day shutdown of programs financed by the Highway Trust Fund, because of a block imposed on the legislation by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.). During that period, some highway projects were halted, bid lettings and contract awards were delayed.
In addition, about 2,000 workers at the U.S. Dept. of Transportation were furloughed without pay because their jobs were paid for by trust-fund revenue.
The surface transportation programs have been operating under a series of extensions since Sept. 30, when the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users expired. The third such stopgap lapsed on Feb. 28, causing funds to be cut off.
DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said he was pleased that the Senate passed the bill and directed the department's furloughed workers to return to their posts on March 3.
Bunning said he supported the bill's extensions of unemployment benefits and highway funding, but was blocking its approval because he wanted to see the measure's cost offset. Nevertheless, he relented on March 2, accepting an offer to propose an alternative amendment. But Bunning's bill failed on a procedural vote and the Senate then passed the extension.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) praised the bill's passage. She said, "This week, we saw the shutdown of many important highway and bridge projects, which caused great concern in many of our states. Now I look forward to a longer-term transportation extension with the legislation that has already passed the Senate, and which I believe will pass the House this week."
The Senate committee's top Republican, James Inhofe (Okla.), said that the bill's approval puts people back to work and ensures that federal highway aid again will flow to states. "But let me be clear," Inhofe added, "today's vote is only a short-term victory."
Until a long-term extension is approved, he noted, highway funding under the roughly one-month stopgap will be $1 billion less per month than in 2009 "and we will be living with the uncertainty of yet another short-term extension." Inhofe called on the House to pass the nine-month extension, which also restores highway funding to the 2009 level.